Saturday, February 23, 2013

Milk Bar Crack Pie

I debated about this post. I had fully intended to write all about this baking adventure before I tied up my apron. I documented the whole process in photos. And when the pie was sliced and passed around, it wasn’t long before everyone’s plate was scraped clean, ready for a second piece. It was a hit.

Why, then, the debate? Because for me, this pie is a story of high expectations and ultimate disappointment. I know that’s not a promising way to begin a post on a food blog, but it’s the right thing to do. I want you to be prepared. But there’s still a story here, so you mustn’t let the inevitable disappointment deter you from enjoying the journey. Life leads to death, but we still opt to live, right? And just like life, my journey with Crack Pie didn’t come without a bit of fun, a few good drug puns, and a silver lining.

Milk Bar is an NYC bakery within David Chang’s Momofuku empire. Head pastry chef Christina Tosi runs the show there, and it’s her singular taste that gave the place a reputation that precedes it.

I discovered Milk Bar through the pages of its cookbook, written by Tosi and published in 2011. I stood in the book section of Kitchen Window and paged through gorgeous photos of day-to-day ingredients and candid shots of the kitchen staff. Alongside them were all the recipes to Milk Bar’s now-famous desserts. But having been unaware of the shop’s existence until that point, the revealed secrets are not what pulled me in. It was Tosi’s narratives throughout the book that kept me fixed in that aisle, turning the pages. Her prose was casual and edgy, and I immediately respected her. Even though she seemed to be up on a high horse at times, I figured she deserved to be there. Just glance at the Milk Bar menu and you can see it: she’s a dessert visionary.

The oat cookie crust - hands down, the best part of Crack Pie.

It’s funny, because if Tosi is at all pretentious, it’s because she’s trademarked the baking utility of the most unpretentious ingredients. She writes recipes that glorify her favorite sweet and salty snacks – marshmallows, potato chips, pretzels, Ritz crackers, graham crackers… - and she brings those flavors together over one simple, subtle, and soothingly familiar base ingredient: milk.

Virtually every recipe of hers uses some form of it, whether it’s whole milk, heavy cream, milk powder, or some combination thereof. It seems Tosi inadvertently discovered the secret to dessert one-upmanship – at a certain point, you stop fiddling with what’ll seem most exotic and fanciful and you go back to what everyone has loved from day one. You exploit it unapologetically, and you do it better than anyone else. Which isn’t too difficult when no one else is doing it.

So that’s Milk Bar, and that’s Christina Tosi. And that’s why my expectations were so damn high.

I received my copy of Momofuku Milk Bar this Christmas. Over the next couple weeks, I slowly made my way through the book, reading it, more or less, cover to cover. I wanted to make one of the recipes for my sister’s  birthday in early February. I quickly learned that, while Tosi’s raging sweet tooth and salty snack diet give her creations the illusion of accessibility, the lady is still trained in pastry arts – at the French Culinary Institute, to be exact. That means she can not only decide that salted caramel, peanut butter nougat, pretzels, and chocolate will get along more than a little nicely, but she has the knowledge of baking chemistry to make it happen. And she lets us know it, too, with her ingredient list. Alongside the everyday pantry items in Tosi’s recipes, you’ll find glucose, citric acid, gelatin sheets, and pectin. Pectin.

Tosi suggests separating yolks and whites in your hand; it's easier to feel when the last of the egg white has slipped off. You're left with an egg yolk that's surprisingly strong and self-contained. Go ahead, try it.
There are eight egg yolks in this recipe. That's split between two pie tins, but still. Maybe don't schedule any blood work for the next day. 

I narrowed my search to the recipes that would not require shopping for esoteric ingredients on amazon. (I’m not unwilling to do this, by the way. I just want to be sure I’ll have multiple occasions for glucose before I go online and buy a bucket of it.) I decided on Crack Pie because its most foreign ingredients were milk powder and corn powder, both of which I found at Whole Foods. 

I also chose it because it’s called Crack Pie. We’ve all heard of it, Jimmy Fallon has endorsed it, and it references an illicit substance that none of us were cool/stupid enough to have messed around with thus far. Allegedly, the first time Tosi made this pie, her staff flipped and kept crawling back for more. They ran on a high the entire evening, and eventually crashed. It sounded kind of fun. I wanted to know if the hype was legit. Was it really that cracktastic? (Warning: more wordplay to come.)

This is freeze dried corn. You can buy it online or in the bulk section at some Whole Foods. You could ask an employee for assistance if you have trouble finding it, but they will probably just ask you if you mean frozen corn. You don't.  
Mount Crackatoa: sugar, milk powder, and corn powder.

Remember that "bit of fun" I mentioned in my downer introduction? This is where it starts. When I was a kid, one of my favorite pastimes was mixing up concoctions. They were edible concoctions, but only insofar as all the individual components were fit for consumption. (Drawing inspiration from after-school viewings of Great Chefs, I’d really nail the presentation. I remember topping one bowl of beige slop with an artful arrangement of rainbow sprinkles, pine needles, and a pinecone. But I’m getting off point.) 

I’m telling you this because that’s what it was like when I made the Crack Pie. Mixing together sugar and butter and cream and egg yolks offers all the satisfaction of watching disparate ingredients meld together into a thick, glossy, homogeneous soup, only this one was actually meant to be ingested. You can’t get that same satisfaction from civilized desserts that don’t direct you to cram as much fat and cream and cholesterol as will fit into one pie tin. Yes, that’s right. Crack Pie is edible, but it’s completely uncivilized.

This is the kind of beautiful mess I strove toward in my early culinary ventures.

Caitlin's birthday crack pie. It's a pretty bland-looking thing in the end. The powdered sugar helps a bit. The flowerpot with a bow does not.

On the night of Caitlin’s birthday, I showed up at her place with the cold Crack Pie. Having never tried it before, we approached it with some trepidation. We took our first bites, a little afraid of what we might become. Caitlin, Shawn, and Josh all cut a second piece. I was doing fine with my single piece.

I brought the second Crack Pie to work that week. I drafted an email to the entire office, telling them about the treat I brought. “It’s called crack pie because of all the butter and sugar in the filling,” I typed. “It’s totally within the law, except for the crack sprinkled on top.”

See? I was having fun, even if I did delete that last part before sending.

The co-workers went back for seconds, too. But me, I'd had enough after one piece. I don’t know. If I had to describe Crack Pie, I’d say it’s like cookie dough gone bad. Not rancid bad; mean bad. Rough around the edges. Aggressive. Maybe a little malicious? I know, that’s a strong accusation to make against a comestible, but there you go. I guess I expected more.

There are so many beautiful desserts in that book. And now, having introduced you to Tosi and her manifesto, I can move on to the next recipe and subsequently write about it in a blog post that will be both a) more laudatory of the food itself and b) shorter. But that’s not even the silver lining.

Here’s the silver lining: Next time I’m in New York, I will make a special trip to Momofuku Milk Bar. Money will not be an object. I will stare at the big chalkboard menu for fifteen, twenty minutes as my poor, reeling brain narrows the offerings down, not to what money can afford, but to what my stomach will allow. Candy bar pie? Grapefruit pie? Cereal milk ice cream + berry milk crumb? It’s not going to be easy. And if I’d gone there a month ago, the storied Crack Pie would have been a shoo-in. Now, that slot is open. And that’ll make my decision just a little bit easier.

The hero shot, for what it's worth.

1 comment:

  1. I'm the first comment! Great article Megan! Crack pie sounds amazing, but i don't know if i'll be looking for freeze dried corn anytime soon. Look forward to future postings :)